I absolutely love the story of the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth (today’s Gospel reading – Luke 1 39-45). It is a story we can fully enter into finding ever new and deeper levels of meaning, and challenge.
I think in reading and reflecting on the story we have two choices: We can domestic the story, reading it simply as a necessary precursor to the main action (the birth of Jesus), regarding Mary and Elizabeth as attendees at a coffee morning, or maybe even some early version of a NCT class, or we can we read it as an encounter to between two highly suspect and scandalous characters who are both about to contribute to the ultimate socio-religious upheaval.
So we have a choice: we can either read the story through the lens of safety, or the lens of scandal and challenge. We should of course opt for scandal and challenge even if only for our own interests sake!
Of course the story isn’t only about the meeting between two cousins, for there is also a third character involved: the Holy Spirit. So this is also a charismatic story.
The Holy Spirit, it seems, is up to something bold, big and, creative. His agents of change are a virgin and her elder, barren, cousin. It isn’t really very plausible is it? If you or I wanted to effect change would we select a young woman, who had mysteriously gone and got herself pregnant and her elder barren cousin, who by the way is married to a mute? I suggest not.
Yet from these two women comes the re-shaping, or renewal and reform, of world religion! God chooses to legitimize his very presence and being in a thoroughly illegitimate manner, through Mary, whilst planting his evangelist in chief in Elizabeth’s barren womb.
The story of the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth should challenge the C of E to its very core as we contemplate what Renewal and Reform looks like in the here and now. We should at least ask the following questions:
Where has the Holy Spirit already planted the seed of renewal? This may of course be in a very different place to where we would like the Holy Spirit to plant his seed.
Are we prepared to identify, train and equip the illegitimate and seemingly barren for ministry? I suspect that religious leaders through the ages possibly wouldn’t have immediately thought of the likes of Mary and Elizabeth as worthy ordination candidates. I suspect that this may still be the case!
Are we looking for growth in the seemingly barren places, or are we in retreat? Both Scripture and the history of Christianity seem to suggest that real renewal and reformation come through the unlikeliest of characters; characters who live on the periphery socially, geographically and institutionally. Growth, renewal, reformation frequently, normatively, comes from where we least expect to see it. In itself this is a hugely counter cultural statement for strategists, leaders and planners like to be able to predict and manage growth on their own terms.
The trouble is that Christian renewal seems not to work like this. It has to take place on God’s terms, with human cooperation epitomized by the likes of Mary and Elizabeth, two of Scripture’s most unlikely ‘strategists.’
Maybe Mary and Elizabeth should be given patronage over our contemporary focus on Renewal and Reform, after all they have an awful lot to teach us.